It has been just over six months since retired Gen. John Kelly took over as White House chief of staff. For most Americans, Kelly’s selection for the position in July 2017 represented a potential turning point for a highly dysfunctional West Wing. After all, Kelly served honorably as an infantry officer in the United States Marine Corps for more than 40 years. Along the way, he earned a reputation as a strong and principled leader with a penchant for order and discipline.
By all accounts, Kelly had some early success. However, he continues to find himself at the center of a steady stream of controversies, largely of his own doing. The situation has left many Americans dismayed and disappointed with his performance, but perhaps none more so than those who know Kelly best — his fellow Marines.
Marines are a peculiar bunch. I can say that because I served in the Marine Corps for more than two decades. Anyone who has ever met a Marine knows that we strive to hold ourselves and our fellow Marines to a higher standard of conduct. When we become Marines, we don’t just carry the title with us — we carry all that it means to be a Marine with us.
While we may not share the same background, political views or religious beliefs, we are all committed to a set of core values. They require us to exemplify the highest standards of ethical and moral behavior and to abide by an uncompromising code of integrity — and they are non-negotiable. These are not just things we do — they represent who we are.
Until, as in the case of Kelly, they don’t. And because of this, he should resign.
Kelly’s recent failure to take action after learning that White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter, a man with no security clearance but access to classified information, had been accused of physically abusing his previous wives, represents an extraordinary lapse in judgment and moral courage. (Porter denies the allegations against him.)
But the story doesn’t end there. Prior to the release of photographs showing one of Porter’s former wives with a black eye, Kelly, who had known as early as fall 2017 that Porter was facing difficulty in obtaining security clearance after his ex-wives alleged abuse, launched a vigorous defense of his staff secretary. In his initial statement, he called Porter “a man of true integrity and honor.” He went on to say that Porter was a “friend, a confidante and a trusted professional” with whom he was “proud to serve alongside.”
White House officials buttressed Kelly’s defense of Porter by telling the public that Kelly only recently became “fully aware” of the situation. The statement was true in the same way that someone only recently becomes “fully aware” that they were pregnant, after they have given birth.
Kelly later issued an updated statement where he said he was “shocked” to learn of the allegations and condemned domestic abuse. But his initial words of praise for Porter suggests a callous indifference to his responsibility to do the right thing.
By using words like honor and integrity, and declaring that he was proud to serve alongside Porter, Kelly was deliberately attempting to leverage a special kind of capital that only men with his background and experience possess. You see, for the select few military service members who achieve the rank of general, the people of this country bestow upon them an extra level of trust, confidence and credibility.
Unfortunately, Kelly’s recent betrayal of that trust is not his first.
In an effort to defend President Donald Trump’s handling of a condolence call to the widow of a fallen soldier, Kelly launched an attack on Congresswoman Frederica Wilson of Florida last October. Wilson was a friend of the family of Army Sgt. LaDavid Johnson and was with the family when the President called to offer condolences.
Following the call, Wilson, who listened to the call, expressed her displeasure with the President’s suggestion that her husband “knew what he signed up for.” The President vigorously denied that he had made the remark, but Wilson defended her account, and in doing so, raised the ire of Kelly.
On October 19, the General made a rare appearance during a White House press briefing with one objective — to discredit Wilson. Kelly labeled the congresswoman an “empty barrel” and claimed that during a public speech she had given two years prior, she used her time to take credit for securing funding for a new federal building in her Florida district.
The problem is that Kelly’s story was a complete fabrication. A video released after his remarks revealed that Wilson used her speech to praise the two slain FBI agents in whose memory the building was being dedicated. Despite the evidence that his recollection was flawed, Kelly decided it was more important to stand by his account than to admit that he was wrong. When asked if he had something to apologize for, Kelly replied, “Absolutely not.”
Making and standing by comments that reflect poorly on himself and his fellow Marines has become a routine occurrence for Kelly. Earlier this month, he lamented that young immigrants who were eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program failed to apply for the legal protections because “some would say [they] were too afraid to sign up” — and “others would say too lazy to get off their asses.” Kelly’s defenders suggested that the ensuing outrage was nothing short of political correctness run amok.
But this not about political correctness and certainly not about political affiliation. It’s about having the courage to admit that you made a mistake.
For a lot of readers, this viewpoint may seem like an overreaction to a few missteps by a man with an extremely difficult job. But as Marines, we inherited a reputation that was earned by those who came before us. Kelly, like all Marines, has a responsibility to uphold the values that are the foundation of that reputation. If we allow ourselves to become accepting of occasional willful lapses in character, judgment or integrity by one of our own, we do a disservice to the past generations of Marines who upheld the values we hold dear.
So, while I can’t speak for every American, I can speak for the Marines I know and have served with when I say we can no longer give the General the benefit of the doubt. The time has come for Kelly to prove that he still has the ability to do the honorable thing. He should resign immediately and begin the process of making amends to all the Marines who so desperately want to believe that somewhere, deep down inside, the General is still one of us.